Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Device Reveals Invisible World Teeming with Microscopic Algae

07.10.2010
It just got easier to pinpoint biological hot spots in the world’s oceans where some inhabitants are smaller than, well, a pinpoint.

Microscopic algae are called phytoplankton and range from one to hundreds of microns in size – the smallest being 1/100th the size of a human hair. But as tiny as they may be, communities of the phytoplankton south of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, are big players when it comes to carbon: They take up 50 percent of the carbon dioxide going from the atmosphere into the oceans there.

“We thought that had to be a mistake at first,” says Francois Ribalet, a UW post-doctoral researcher in oceanography and lead author of a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper on the discovery published online in September.

“They are such small cells to do so much,” he says.

Phytoplankton, like plants on land, take up carbon from carbon dioxide during photosynthesis to build cells. Phytoplankton anchor the oceanic food web so where one finds a lot of phytoplankton, one usually finds a healthy collection of fish and animals. If not eaten, phytoplankton die and sink, carrying their carbon with them. Worldwide, ocean phytoplankton consume as much carbon dioxide as the Earth’s forests and land plants combined.

“Being able to readily detect and track blooms of these small-celled phytoplankton is critical for understanding their impact in the oceans and global carbon cycle,” Ribalet says.

SeaFlow, a device being developed at the UW, is making that task easier, he says. The instrument is a flow cytometer that measures the size and pigment composition of each single phytoplankton present in a sample at a rate of thousands of cells per second.

Typically biologists with traditional cytometers looked for phytoplankton using tablespoon-sized samples of water collected 10 to 50 miles or more from each other.

SeaFlow can sample seawater continuously making it possible to analyze samples every three minutes or two samples per mile traveled, says Jarred Swalwell, a research engineer with oceanography and lead developer. That’s because the instrument taps into the system found on board most oceanographic research vessels that supplies running seawater to shipboard labs for such things as keeping specimens alive.

In this way SeaFlow collects more samples in a day than most scientists gather on an entire cruise, Swalwell says. And SeaFlow sensors and banks of computers, not scientists with traditional cytometers and microscopes, sort the characteristics of phytoplankton communities to determine what’s present.

SeaFlow takes five minutes to do what used to take him two months, Ribalet says.

A prototype of the device revealed the biological hotspot off Vancouver Island and, for the first time, a marine ecotone, something oceanographers knew must exist but had no way to locate before now.

Ecotones are where different habitats overlap, where a prairie and forest meet, for example, or a river and estuary intersect. Ectones are rich with species because plants and animals from both ecosystems might be found there, as well as those adapted specifically to this hybrid environment. The ecotone discovered by Ribalet and colleagues is a 40-mile-wide region where ocean water rich with nitrates met coastal water rich with iron and where not just one, but five oceanic phytoplankton communities were detected taking full advantage of the carbon and nutrients concentrated there.

“This was just unexpected diversity,” Ribalet says. “It flies in the face of the textbooks.”

Ribalet and Swalwell imagine additional marine ecotones and biological hot spots could be detected if SeaFlows were installed on various ships and set up in a way to automatically alert scientists when phytoplankton abundance takes an interesting turn. Just such a SeaFlow set up has already been permanently mounted on the UW’s vessel, the Thomas G. Thompson.

Other co-authors on the paper from the UW are professor of oceanography Virginia Armbrust, research scientist Adrian Marchetti, doctoral research assistants Katherine Hubbard and Colleen Durkin, and research engineer Rhonda Morales; Kristina Brown and Philippe Tortell from University of British Columbia; and Marie Robert from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The work was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Environmental Health and Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For more information:
Ribalet, 206-221-7258, ribalet@uw.edu
Website: http://armbrustlab.ocean.washington.edu/people/ribalet
Swalwell, 206-221-7258, jarred@uw.edu
Website: http://armbrustlab.ocean.washington.edu/node/226
SeaFlow homepage: http://seaflow.ocean.washington.edu/
YouTube: Census for the very small
http://armbrustlab.ocean.washington.edu/node/245
The colors red, orange and yellow indicate marine areas with abundant microscopic algae, some of which would have gone undiscovered using typical discrete sampling methods. The biological hotspot depicted in the North Pacific in this video, for instance, was between places the ship stopped to sample. It was revealed only because of new UW technology able to continuously sample and quickly analyze seawater while a ship is underway.

Video credit: Francois Ribalet

Sandra Hines | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.uw.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Multi-institutional collaboration uncovers how molecular machines assemble
02.12.2016 | Salk Institute

nachricht Fertilized egg cells trigger and monitor loss of sperm’s epigenetic memory
02.12.2016 | IMBA - Institut für Molekulare Biotechnologie der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften GmbH

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

Im Focus: MADMAX: Max Planck Institute for Physics takes up axion research

The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.

The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...

Im Focus: Molecules change shape when wet

Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water

In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...

Im Focus: Fraunhofer ISE Develops Highly Compact, High Frequency DC/DC Converter for Aviation

The efficiency of power electronic systems is not solely dependent on electrical efficiency but also on weight, for example, in mobile systems. When the weight of relevant components and devices in airplanes, for instance, is reduced, fuel savings can be achieved and correspondingly greenhouse gas emissions decreased. New materials and components based on gallium nitride (GaN) can help to reduce weight and increase the efficiency. With these new materials, power electronic switches can be operated at higher switching frequency, resulting in higher power density and lower material costs.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE together with partners have investigated how these materials can be used to make power...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

UTSA study describes new minimally invasive device to treat cancer and other illnesses

02.12.2016 | Medical Engineering

Plasma-zapping process could yield trans fat-free soybean oil product

02.12.2016 | Agricultural and Forestry Science

What do Netflix, Google and planetary systems have in common?

02.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>